Principles of Design

The Principles are concepts used to organize or arrange the structural elements of design. The way in which these principles are applied affects the expressive content, or the message of the work. Principles are guidelines, not rules. Some artists use them more than others.

In creating works of art, an artist must carefully choose which of these visual elements to include in order to communicate best what he or she wants to say in that work of art.

We've looked at the elements of visual form – including the dominant aspects of what we see. The process of organizing or structuring these elements into works of art is called design.
All of this enables us to better understand why we respond the way we do to a work of art – and, on a larger scale, to the visually rich world all around us.

Artists make many design choices regarding size, materials, and the ways in which visual elements may be used and organized.

These decisions are guided by the artist's expressive goal and sense of design.

The goal is to achieve Unity. To unify compositions out of diverse elements. This can be achieved through harmony and variety of the elements. The balance does not have to be equal. The use of both harmony and variety are essential to unity.

The Principles of Design are concepts that guide the process of developing significant form.

Design principles have to do with the quality of relationships within a work of art and between a work and it's surroundings.

These principles are not rules, but they're important considering during the selection process as an artist seeks to make form "work" visually.

All of us have a sense of what feels right or wrong visually, but we're often not sure why.

The specific principles we'll discuss are fundamental and can be applied not just to works of art, but to every situation that calls for objects to be placed in a pleasing, organized manner.

The term composition is often used interchangeably with the term design when referring to 2-dimensional arts such as painting and photography.

Although there are certain rules for composition, none guarantee success.

The success of a composition depends on one's efforts to develop his or her own sense of design through trained perception and visual experience – in other words, through practice and trial and error.

Good design depends on developing confidence in one's intuition, feeling, and awareness rather than learning and using formulas.


Frank Stella's "Tampa" Frank Stella - Tampa (1966)
©Frank STELLA;
Photo ©Kathleen Cohen

The principles are:

  • Balance
  • Movement
  • Scale and Proportion
  • Dominance /Emphasis
  • Economy
  • Space
  • Unity and Variety
  • Repetition and Rhythm